LettersTheory & Practice

Joseph Needham, the Great Amphibian

Like most people who teach in the humanities, I think that there are ways of understanding the present through the past. We return again and again to certain key authors as touchstones. There are two different ways of going about this, however.

One is to take the succession of key authors as given, as a sort of canon, and then explicate and elaborate on them, in and for our times.

The other is to start with the times, with the exigencies of the current situation, and ask whether the pasts we take for granted for this present are adequate to explain it. And when they are not, to look for a new past. This second method has the additional quality of calling into question how canons are formed in the first place.

For instance, two features of the current situation strike me as relatively novel. Firstly, it can no longer be pretended that what happens in Europe and America is a proxy for ‘world history.’ The centers of development are at the very least more plural than that, and perhaps elsewhere altogether.

Secondly, it really is something of a revolution in thought to see the world as a biosphere, and to see collective human labor in and on that biosphere as undermining its conditions of stability. Some would call this the Anthropocene. Grasping what this means calls for some familiarity, some relation, to scientific knowledge.

If one wanted some version of a Marxism, a post-Marxism, a critical theory or a philosophy of praxis that might address those two aspects of the current situation, is the canon of such authors up to the task? Would Lukacs, Gramsci, Althusser and their followers provide the necessary conceptual tools?

Perhaps not. With few exceptions, that canon as received is rather Eurocentric in outlook. More seriously, what one finds in this tradition is either the attempt to critique scientific knowledge, or to control it by legislating on its epistemology, or theory of knowledge.

Which is not to say that such conceptual tools are useless, just not the most useful. Why try to bang in a nail with the edge of a wrench when a hammer lies in the bottom of the toolbox, unused? Perhaps it is time then for a bit of an inventory of just such neglected tools.

One author who suggests himself as useful for the times in Joseph Needham. He made significant contributions to biochemistry, and spend the long second act of his career writing a multi-volume history of Chinese science and technology. My hunch if that if one wanted a useful past for this present, Needham’s life and work might be one of them.

As he was born in 1900, he was a close contemporary of Lacan, Lefebvre, Adorno. Like Adorno, his mother was musical. His father was a surgeon. Needham actually assisted in surgical procedures for a colleague of his father’s at the age of nine.

He won a scholarship to the public school Oundle. It was a progressive school, but he and his classmates nevertheless ended up assembling material for the war effort in class time. Fortunately for him the war ended before he was old enough to be thrown at it.

A teenage Needham cheered when the Bolsheviks won, but his outlook was still vague, shaped by reading Wells and Shaw, and he was a devout and at this stage still orthodox Anglo-Catholic. He went up to Cambridge, where be began a lifelong association with the Dunn Laboratory and Gonville and Caius college.

An inheritance of 6,500 pounds and an uncle who could help manage it prudently set him up for a comfortable life as a gentleman-scholar. The purchase of the Armstrong-Siddley sports car once own by world land speed record holder Malcolm Campbell hinted at a more adventurous side, not to mention some mechanical aptitude.

He married Dorothy Moyle in 1924. She was a talented biologist, later to specialize in the study of muscles, politically progressive, and as we shall see rather broad-minded. Needham became a fellow of Gonville and Caius that same year. His academic standing resting on the massive three volume study Chemical Embryology.

The Needhams belonged to the Thaxted church, presided over by Conrad Noel, the ‘red vicar.’ Needham was also an enthusiastic Morris Dancer. He was a left-Labour militant, and began reading Marx and Engels, in German, in the 1920s. These seemingly disparate interests combined in a distinctive and surprisingly coherent worldview.

He was an ‘amphibious’ thinker, equally at home in science, religion, art, philosophy and history. He saw these as parallel and incommensurable ways of knowing the world. In the twenties his approach to science was influenced by Ernst Mach, and hence ‘positivist,’ keen on limiting spurious speculation. He insisted on mechanist approaches to explaining biological phenomena, and resisted any attempt to account for the specificity of life via vitalist theories not amenable to observation or experiment.

Nevertheless, Needham saw religion as an indispensible domain of social feeling, a kind of collective experience of the numinous, which might be thought of as the radically other and inexplicable aspect of the universe. For Needham religion was a practice of human solidarity, in and against that otherness. Under Conrad Noel’s influence, Needham detached himself from conventional high church piety, and identified instead with a sense of the early Christians as a popular, revolutionary force, inspired by a sense of divine justice.

An interest in folk dancing was no mere ‘English eccentricity’. Needham took an active interest in the remnants of English folk culture. He even wrote a scholarly article on folk music, celebrating both the lightness of the form and its seriousness about the struggles for life. He also wrote a short book on the history of the English revolution that drew the attention of the historian who would later write celebrated accounts of it – Christopher Hill.

Needham saw himself as inheriting two things from that revolution, the radical Christian spirit of the Levellers, and the modern scientific method of the Invisible College, precursor to the Royal Society. He saw the revolution in Marxist terms, as clearing the way of the supersession of the feudal economy by the beginnings of a capitalist one.

The revolution destroyed the old collectivist, yet hierarchical, worldview of those like Archbishop Laud, who had at least resisted the enclosures of the land and continued to oppose usury. Yet the new, egalitarian collectivism of the Levellers and the Diggers was not a strong enough social force to provide an alternative to the atomistic and individualistic world view of an emerging bourgeois class and its dissenting church ideologists.

If there was a positive side to this, however, it was the new science of the Invisible College, which at first wanted to develop a scientific method for improving agriculture and industry, even if the early practitioners of science like Robert Boyle were rather remote from industry. Out of this modern scientific method would emerge.

What gradually emerges in Needham as a religious and historical thinker is the project of a synthesis of the radical and scientific inheritance of the civil war. The Levellers continue the popular, revolutionary strain of Christianity, which is in turn reenergized by Conrad Noel. Needham always wanted to keep science away from religious thinking, but he would over time come to see how embedded it is in history and how, looking forward, science always implies a politics.

Gary Werskey’s book The Visible College is an invaluable guide to the politics that emerged among a small group of scientists and scientific workers in England in the 1930s. Some, like JBS Haldane, were radicalized by their experience of WWI. Some, like JD Bernal, by the general strike of 1926. And for some, like Needham, the key event was when Nicolai Bukharin came to town.

Bukharin came with a Soviet delegation to a Congress on the History of Science. The visit was hastily arranged at the last minute, and since the conference program could not be changed to incorporate full papers from all the Soviet speakers, a book was hastily put together: Science at the Crossroads. It advanced two significant claims.

The first was that Soviet society fully embraced both the autonomous self-development of science and its role of science in social development, a position which in Needham’s own field of biology Stalin would completely betray.

The second was that the history of science was not a succession of Great Men but an integral part of the historical development of capitalism. One contributor to the volume argued that even Isaac Newton’s work could be understood in such terms. A trading nation such as England had a practical interest in astronomy as an aid to navigation.

Moreover, the universal, abstract time and space within which Newton’s celestial mechanics unfolded could be read as a kind of cosmic version of England’s post revolution constitutional monarchy as the universal imperium within which the interactions of free-trading agents simply took care of themselves.

Most of this just sailed over the heads of the Congress’ participants, but a small group of British scientists were deeply attracted to both the political and historical claims made by the Soviet delegation. At the very least, it was a way of breaking out of the prevailing attitude of the gentleman-scientist, disinterested in anything but pure research, at a time when such a culture had outlived its historical usefulness in either social or scientific terms.

It is also, arguably, a new relatively neglected precursor to science studied as currently understood. Bruno Latour’s argument in We Have Never Been Modern on the ‘dual constitution’ of the political and scientific realms would not have struck Needham, Bernal or Haldane as particularly novel.

Needham’s work in biology is far, far outside my range of competence. Fortunately Donna Haraway wrote about his work in her first book, Crystals, Fabrics and Fields. There she charts how his work on embryos pushed him to revise the mechanistic metaphors that organized his earlier work in the direction of a kind of ‘organicism’ that nevertheless precluded any recourse to vitalist special pleading.

The problem with vitalism – then as now – is that it invokes a special, non-testable hypothesis to account for the specificity of living things. Mechanist approaches avoided this extra-scientific short-cut, but were frustrated in their attempts to account for certain features of living systems, particularly their capacity for self-regulation. For example, Driesch had shown how, after the first cell-division in an embryo, if the cells are separated and allowed to develop, they produce two complete organisms. A phenomena that mechanical metaphors could not really picture.

Like vitalism, organicism maintains that the study of the parts does not explain the whole. Like vitalistm, organicism sees goal-directed behavior in organic systems. Hence biology cannot be reduced to physics, as it has unique phenomena to explain. Needham insisted, however, that organicism deals only in testable theories.

Haraway: “From an organismic perspective, the central and unavoidable focus of biology is form.” Form implies genesis. How have forms evolved? How are forms maintained through, and in spite of, metabolic process? How are boundaries maintained? Embryology and evolution are key fields for organicist questions.

Needham’s work was about “the problem of finding some relation between the gross morphological forms manifested by living things and the specific molecular constitutions which they possess.” But this in turn depended on advances in understanding the architecture of molecules themselves. The technique of x-ray crystallography was at this time steadily advancing from simple to complex non-organic molecular forms, and would eventually reveal the form of some kinds of organic molecules as well, although it would be 1935 before the structure of proteins was understood.

Organicism has to clear two conceptual hurdles. The first was to reject any teleology, any hint of a final cause which drew development toward it. The other was to avoid also the problem of immanence, of just say that a form results “because emergence,” as if that was an explanation, rather than that which had to be explained.

Needham’s solution in terms of a research program was to try to bridge the gap in scales between developmental morphology and biochemistry. His program was a biochemistry of development. He stressed the chemical geography of the embryonic cell.

The chemistry of the embryo changes as it develops. For example, a developing embryo can change the form in which it excretes nitrogen. This can change from ammonia to urea to uric acid, although not all species go through all of these stages. Needham rejected Haeckel’s famous theory, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” which holds that the embryo rapidly cycles through a repeat of the evolutionary steps the species has undergone. This would fall under that class of teleological theories which assumed what has to be explained, when not simply a misleading analogy.

Needham, who loved not only fast cars but locomotives, saw the embryo as a complex machine, perhaps something like a gearbox. Needham: “It is as if each fundamental process represented a layshaft which may or may not be in gear with the primary shaft, and the animal economy is obviously so constituted that more than one secondary gear can be engaged with the primary shaft at one time.” This led him to look for a ‘primary shaft’ of development, which he took to be basal metabolism, the basic energy system of the organism. As he was a reader of Marx, perhaps he had even thought of the embryo as a base and a superstructure.

But the gearbox metaphor breaks down. It does not really picture both metabolism and morphological development. So he turned instead to an imaginary of fields and fibers. (Recent x-ray crystallography was starting to reveal the chemical architecture of natural fibers.)

Like Marx, Needham was a reader of Lucretius. One of his sources was this ancient Epicurian atomism, which suggested that a given outward morphology could be the result of fitting some kind of ‘atomic’ elements together in particular patterns. He abandoned the Aristotelian view of a higher power or final form that drew the elements together into itself – the root of most vitalist theories of form.

Instead, he developed the image of the field. In a field theory, development is determined by proximity-effects. The form and function of the part depended on relations with adjacent parts within the whole. But rather than a reduction of biology to physics, this implied the introduction into physics of a problem from biology, the problem of how proximity in a field causes certain kinds of forms to assemble. Crystals are an example from the nonorganic realm. The high degree of organization in organic systems stemmed from fundamental properties of physical matter. But matter has organizing relations at a scale beyond the atom and the molecule.

The autonomy of biology as a science had to do with this level of organization. The unity of science derived from articulating the relation between levels of organization. This was not a kind of reductionism, but nor was it a general systems theory. The question of form has to be studied in its specificity at each ‘level’ or ‘scale’ or organization. Biochemistry provides an understanding of how molecules can align in patterns and structures which can be folded and shaped into a larger scale of much more diverse forms.

Here Needham’s thinking went right up to the limit of what experimental science could actually do at the time. He began by understanding proteins as crystalline fibers that can be oriented into specific patterns by particular active substances. These would stimulate irreversible morphing of the field. Any given point in the field has a specific quality, direction and intensity. Fields have successive equilibrium positions. Haraway: “Needham believed that fields were distinguished from simple geographic regions of the embryo by three criteria: any given point within the field force had to possess a given quality, a given direction, and a given intensity. Fields were judged in terms of instability and successive equilibrium positions.”

Needham’s experimental work in the 1930s was a search for the chemical ‘organizers’ that determined how a certain part of a field would be the zone at which a given form would emerge. This was less successful that the work of the ‘Theoretical Biology Club’, to which Needham contributed, in mapping out the general problems of how biochemistry could be ‘scaled up’ towards morphological questions.

Besides Lucretius, Needham drew on three sources: the philosopher Albert North Whitehead, the systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and the theoretical writings of Marx and Engels. But these were interpreted through his experience as an experimental scientist and through the problems of scientific work. Haraway: “The organismic paradigm involved the convergence of thought from mathematics, experimental embryology, biochemistry, biophysics, protein chemistry, logic, and language theory. By 1932 the paradigm was fully operative in Needham’s thought; the former mechanistic paradigm no longer fostered the interesting questions.”

Haraway notes the influence of Marx on Needham’s biology, but not so much the influence of his biology on his Marxism. This was in any case something outside the scope of her study. But for our purposes it might be a more central question, given that Needham withdrew from biological research in the 1940s, first to become a very peculiar kind of wartime diplomat, and then to embark on his massive study of Chinese science and technology. But first: Needham’s interest in China, which was to radically change his life.

The Man Who Loved China is a popular account of this period in Needham’s life, told with brio by Simon Winchester. In 1937 Needham met Lu Gwei-djen, a 33-year old graduate student from Nanjing. Needham and Lu became lovers. Winchester says that Dorothy Needham did not particularly mind, and he has seen her private diaries and letters to third parties. Needham was certainly taken by the writings of S. D. Schmallausen, who in New Road to Progress advocated a new kind of communist marriage, separated from property and puritanism, and in favor of new kinds of intimacy and collaboration between the sexes.

Lu started teaching Needham Mandarin Chinese. Needham was good at languages, but be as now in his late thirties. He designed his own dictionaries and grammer-books, and with Lu’s help taught himself. Lu also inspired in Needham a passion for China itself. When Japan attacked China in 1937 Needham, no stranger to political campaigning, took up the Chinese cause.

In addition to the usual brutalities, the Japanese invaders made a special target of scholars and universities. Campuses were deliberately targeted for aerial bombing in Wuhan, Shanghai, Nanjing and elsewhere. The British government did nothing, until the United States and Britain declared war on Japan. The British decided to send someone to China specifically to aid in the survival of Nationalist China’s academic life.

That person was Needham. J. G. Crowther, the great progressive science writer, was also head of the science department of the British Council. Crowther arranged for the British Council to send Needham to Chongqing to run the Sino-British Cooperation Office, attached to the British embassy. Needham was to make contact with Chinese scientists and scholars, arrange for journals and lab equipment to be flown in for them, and in Crowther’s words “cheer them up a bit.” So in 1942 Needham flew ‘over the hump’ of the Himalayas into China in an American aircraft, taking Lucretius to read on the way.

Perhaps inspired by Lu, Needham formed the idea of writing a book about Chinese science and technology, and started taking notes for it. His first example was the grafting of plants. He observed a gardener in the grounds of the embassy performing such a graft in a way that seemed different to Needham. On inquiry, the gardener told him that the method had been in use for hundreds of years. Needham became, among other things, an ethnographer of technique.

He acquired an assistant, Huang Hsing-tsung, with whom he travelled the length and breadth of Nationalist controlled China. Winchester: “he was enabled to understand the country’s culture and civilization without being constrained by the conventions of the type of people who in those days infested the country – the businessmen, the missionary, the expatriate bureaucrat, and worst of all the ‘old China hand.’” He was also able to collect many Chinese books and manuscripts and arrange to have them shipped back to his Cambridge offices via diplomatic bag.

Needham travelled some 8000 miles in an old truck converted to run on grain alcohol, equipped with all the necessaries, including “the apparently purposeless lengths of string and oilcloth and sheets of tin without which no self-respecting Englishman would travel anywhere remote….”

Besides meeting many Chinese scientists and scholars, and visiting over two hundred schools, he was able to form a picture of the great achievement of Chinese science and technology. China had a talent for design at all scales, from vast hydraulic projects, bridges and cities, to grafting, the compass and the abacus.

He also made contact with the Chinese Communist Party while in Chingqing, forming a lasting bond with Zhou Enlai, the future first premier of the People’s Republic of China.

After the end of the war, Needham took a job with the new UNESCO, specifically to handle the science portfolio, but the CIA objected, and he resigned in 1947. He was back in Cambridge by 1948, and in a few months had proposed to Cambridge University Press (CUP) what would become his Science and Civilization in China. From China came Wang Ling to collaborate, and with whom Needham shared half his salary until CUP agreed to pay him adequately. One of his contacts back in China, a paleo-meteorologist and university president by the name if Zhu Kezhen, send Needham a massive multi-volume encyclopedia, prepared for the Emperor in 1888. Needham continued receiving rare books long after Mao came to power.

And so Needham began on his life work, in collaboration with Wang Ling and in time also with Lu Gwei-djen, on the many, many volumes of his Science and Civilization in China. They covered everything from wrought iron to square-pallet chain pumps to tantric sex to suspension bridges to toilet paper – invented in China in the 6th century of the Common Era. As Winchester remarks, “the books are about detail.” George Steiner would eventually recognize the literary achievement, in addition to the scholarly one. It’s a sort of remembrance of many, many, things past, or a search for a very long stretch of lost time.

The project performs at least two vital intellectual functions. Firstly, it decenters narratives about science, technology, the rise of modernity and all that, of the “from Plato to NATO” kind. China was building vast, complex organizational forms while Europeans were still basically a bunch of hill-tribe goat-fuckers. The other is that it asks what became the ‘Needham question’: why did Chinese ingenuity appear to dry up? What are the conditions of possibility for sustained technical advance? (A question the transnational techno-civilization, or what Benjamin Bratton calls the stack, might well ask itself).

Later scholars have questioned both aspects of this achievement. Needham does not entirely escape from the matrix of Euro-centrism. Nor does he give a satisfactory answer to the ‘Needham question’, which may not even be one that is well posed. Still. If one were to look for someone whose work, coming out of the Marxist tradition, might inform our present situation, Needham looks like a strong candidate. He moves Western attention Eastward. He gets us thinking about the technical and social challenges of building, maintaining and developing complex systems that mesh the human and so many kinds of non-human ‘actor’.

Science and Civilization in China is too vast a project to even sketch in this brief essay. I will turn in a second post to Needham’s book Time, The Refreshing River, which documents his social thought around the time of his transition from work in biology to work in science studies. But first: mention must be made of the scandal which in 1952 nearly ended his career.

Did the United States use biological weapons during the Korean war? This seemed like a plausible claim in 1951, when it was first made. The US was known to acquired Japanese bio-weapons research – and researchers. Needham agreed to head up a commission to investigate. Its findings supported the claim.

Winchester: “The establishment turned its guns on him as only the British establishment can do. A hitherto unknown government organization, the Intelligence Research Department of the British Foreign Office, mounted a fierce campaign of character assassination against him, directed at friends within the press and malleable members of Parliament. Fury rained down on him from all quarters. He was ostracized in his college. He came under intense pressure to resign from his academic posts and as a fellow of Caius.”

According to Winchester, documents later surfaced which purport to show that Russian agents had prepared a whole ‘Potemkin village’ in negative, including corpses infected with the plague, to fool Needham and his colleagues. It seems quite likely the lab results done by the Commission (but not by Needham personally) really did show positive results. It isn’t clear who knew and who didn’t outside of those Russian agents. That the plan backfired in its attempt to manipulate western opinion apparently fed into the rather high-stakes jockeying in the Kremlin when Stalin died in 1953.

In any case, Needham weathered the shit-storm of cold war hate that descended on him. The first volume of Science and Civilization in China came out shortly after (1954) and was warmly received. His colleagues at Gonville and Caius probably still resented the fact that he got teaching release to keep writing. In 1965 they actually made him Master of the College. He steered it through the turbulent 60s. He tried, and failed, to get it to admit women.

I hope this brief, provisional sketch at least establishes Needham as an interesting historical figure. What remains to be established is how his writing might speak to our own time. A modest contribution to that task can be found here.

McKenzie Wark

  • Julius Streeter

    “the man w ho mloved china” by nwinchester mis a most engaging biograpophy of joseph needhamm a mostb excellent introduction to mhis mlife andm work and having justnread tjhe book warmly nrecommend it to others.

  • Julius Streeter

    The character of chinese people at best methodical, realistic and npragmatic is exemplified by theirn constant struggle forn survival, mmassive flooding, changes ofb dynisty yet ngreat and nsmall invention of a practical nature were conceived andimplemented by these amazingpeople now a m,ajor world power and mpeople like rewi alley of new zealand and joseph mneedham chosem to befriend and appreciuaten this nationn that fought againstn japanesae baggression so tenaciously andn heroically

  • Paul Crook

    I found McKenzie Wark’s essay on Joseph Needham most enlightening. I have discussed many of Needham’s ideas in an essay “Joseph Needham: Reflections on The Holy and Society” in my website dpcrook.wordpress.com. I would love to get some feedback, so please comment. Paul Crook

Previous post

Obama Channels Reagan in Estonia

Next post

How to Deal with Extremists? Post European Election Reflections